Conversation: Is Parenthood a Barrier to Education?

conversations, parenting

This is anecdotal, I realize, but a summer class started this morning. Like most classes, the full roster in front of me did not correlate with a full classroom. Each first day, some students don’t show up. There’s been a nagging trend: most of the people who don’t show up are women. In fact, almost all of the ones who didn’t show up to my class this morning were women.

Obviously, being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a mother, and being a mother doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the only caregiver available for your child. Still, it seems that a lot of the students who disappear mid-way through the semester are also women, women who have often been struggling to find stable childcare.

Empty Desks

Perhaps this was weighing heavily on my mind because I’ve been thinking about the cost of motherhood in a different context: academia and graduate school. Just today, Mary Ann Mason has an article about how having a baby is a huge liability to women who intend to go on to tenure-track faculty positions. While of course many fathers are actively involved in child-rearing (more than ever), the professional penalties are not the same for men.
Many graduate schools also have no official policies for addressing pregnant students, despite the fact that many women are spending 8+ child-bearing years in their programs. And, as a friend of mine shared in a guest post on my other blog, the pressures of adjunct teaching, navigating health care costs, and the exhaustion of new motherhood can sometimes collide in completely overwhelming ways.
If these problems are so pronounced in higher education, where the students are expected to be older and already have the social and educational benefit of an undergraduate degree under their belts, where does that leave undergraduate students?
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) has a report on the impact of childcare access to low-income students (which can be downloaded for free here). While many think of undergraduate students as the typical, fresh-out-of-high-school, eighteen-year-old, those of us who work in community colleges know that the idea of a “typical” student is somewhat laughable. My classrooms have 18 year olds, 60 year olds, and everything in between. We have students who have been out of high school for decades and students who have had entire careers (and, yes, families) before entering our classrooms. I have students who are not only the sole caregiver for their own young children, but often their young grandchildren as well. As declining high school graduate populations in many regions has sent four-year colleges that used to rely on the “typical” student to find new ways to recruit and retain non-traditional students, we know that non-traditional students have been in the picture for a long time. The IWPR study shows that nearly a quarter of undergraduate students are parents (3.9 million), and that half of them are single parents. This number is even higher in community colleges, where parents make up 30% of the student body.
Here, again, the IWPR found a gender gap in the number of hours spent on childcare. 68% of mothers who are students reported spending 30 hours or more on childcare while only 42% of fathers made the same claim. In addition, fathers are twice as likely (15%) to say they spend no time doing childcare in a week (mothers: 7%).

Raising children, it seems, is a major barrier to educational access, especially for mothers. The study further found that higher education institutions were only meeting 4.8% of the childcare needs of their students.

Unfortunately, that resource is likely to decrease rather than increase as funding for child care in educational settings is getting cut and Head Start programs (another low-cost or no-cost option for student parents) have been hit hard by sequester cuts.

In the wake of these stark realities and sometimes bleak outlook on resources, what can we do to help remove this barrier to student success? Some schools have experimented with student-run co-ops for childcare. There has also been some calls for increased funding to the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, which has seen greatly reduced funding since 2001. Even student groups specifically designed for those who are pregnant and parenting can allow students to get together and share resources and tips.

What do you think? What resources have you seen work to ensure that child care concerns don’t keep parents from succeeding in school?

Photo: Amanda C
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2 thoughts on “Conversation: Is Parenthood a Barrier to Education?

  1. As someone who went back to school as a single mother, I can personally attest to how important and under-addressed these issues are. I returned to school after my second daughter was born because her daycare bill would have been more than my salary if I had kept working (and I worked at the daycare as a pre-k teacher!) and because I had always wanted to return. From living on the somewhat more progressive East coast, I had just sort of assumed that such a large university as UMSL would have a child care center on campus, and they did. They also had nearly a three year wait list, and the tuition was astronomical for my means, actually more than I was paying in rent (over $800 a month). There was no drop-in care and very few subsidies to help out low income parents (assuming they had the foresight to put their yet-to-be conceived fetus on the waiting list). Once enrolled, if your child was sick, or only needed to come three days a week because of your school schedule, or needed to take off time between semesters to save money, these were not options. There was a state program that provided some childcare assistance funding, but even when receiving the maximum amount possible, it only covered about half of the actual cost of care since the formula the state of Missouri uses to determine “average cost of care” is incredible out of touch with the market realities. I was lucky enough to have help from my family to pay for a different child care provider (which was just as expensive and also not flexible), but many of our students are not so lucky. I also faced the attitude from others and often within my own mind as well that this was my own fault for being irresponsible for not finishing college before having kids, and so if I wasn't able to finish now because of it I had no one to blame but myself. Then I took a women's studies class and we learned about the phrase “the personal is political,” and I gained a whole new perspective on this issue. The way that our colleges and universities (and our workplaces for that matter) are set up is incredibly out of touch with the realities of many of our students and tends to benefit most those in the dominant culture. The reality today is that many students take different (though not inherent worse or irresponsible) paths to higher education than what we think of as the traditional college student- right out of high school, not working, and attending college full time with relatively few other responsibilities.

  2. Higher education is designed with this student in mind around his needs, desires, and concerns. However, this simply is not the reality, and by not changing the institution to reflect this new reality, we make it unnecessarily and inordinately difficult for non-traditional students. And it doesn't have to be; there are a number of ways we could reshape higher education to make it more accessible and equitable for all. For instance, one thing that I advocated tirelessly for while at UMSL first as a student and then as a faculty member was a drop-in child care center for faculty and staff. Would it cost money? Sure. But so does everything else on campus; we just have to make this a priority since it benefits our students and can often mean the difference between a student graduating or dropping out. When working for this goal, I often heard individuals say, “Why is it the university's responsibility to watch your kids?” We have to change this mindset. There is no biological reason why there should only be one pathway to college and on into life; one might just as well ask “Why is it the university's responsibility to education students?” Blaming individuals for the way the institution works is a big part of the reason why programs that help students with ancillary needs have been the first to be defunded whenever there are budget cuts. We have to change this mindset and be willing to imagine otherwise the way we conceptualize and put together our institutions of higher learning if we truly want them open to all. Sorry for the epic editorial, but this is one of those topics that is a soapbox trigger for me.


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